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100 million duty angers aid workers and tsunami victims in Sri Lanka

Jun 17, 2005, 14:17 By David Sabapathy Digg this story!

COLOMBO – A major International aid agency, the Oxfam, has had to pay 100 million rupees (£550,000) in customs duty to the Sri Lankan government for importing 25 four-wheel-drive vehicles to help victims of the tsunami, according to aid workers in the Island Nation.


Protest in the Sinhala South
Recently the Sri Lanka finance ministry refused to grant tax exemptions to non-governmental organisations working to repair damage caused by the Boxing Day Tsunami. Oxfam says that it had "no choice" but to pay the exorbitant 300 percent import tax or face further delays to its relief operation.


Anger is growing in Sri Lanka among aid workers and residents who say that reconstruction is being slowed to a crawl by bureaucracy, corruption, greed and inefficiency.


While around $3 billion has been pledged from across the world to help Sri Lanka recover from the tsunami, many aid workers and influential Sri Lankan planners say there is a need for greater coordination to ensure the money is not wasted. Scores of aid organisations, eager to show the donors back home that their money is being well spent, have voiced frustration at red tape holding up projects.


The Oxfam ordered Indian-made Mahindra vehicles, which it says is essential to negotiate damaged roads and rough tracks. The vehicles remained stuck in the port at Colombo for almost a month as officials completed the paperwork required to release them. Customs charged another half a million for every day as they stood idle.


An Oxfam spokesman told BBC that the Indian vehicles were chosen because "Sri Lanka does not manufacture any automobiles so it was not possible to buy them locally".


International aid agency sources told TNS that the Oxfam left with three options by the Sri Lanka’s ministry of finance, pay the duty, re-export the vehicles or hand them over to a ministry of their choice, when they took up the issue with the ministry.


Protest in the Tamil North
Oxfam was one of the major charities to benefit from the generosity of the British public, which donated £300 million for tsunami relief under the umbrella of the Disasters Relief Committee. As the news leaked out, there is growing anger here and abroad. An aid worker said, "When people watched those scenes of destruction and suffering on television they were moved to help the victims - not fill the government's coffers."


Meanwhile British development Minister Gareth Thomas made a two-day visit to tsunami-affected areas in Sri Lanka to assess the progress of British-funded projects. The visit is part of a tour of countries affected by the December tsunami. The British minister visited eastern Sri Lanka, the area worst-affected by the tsunami that killed more than 31,000 people on the tropical island of 19 million people.

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